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Senate panel reviews fines and fees

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Sen. Jeff BrandesIn 1979, when Gary Hester became a police officer, writing up a citation for a burned out taillight meant the driver had 10 days to correct the problem, present proof to the local clerk of court, pay a small handling fee, and get the ticket administratively dismissed.

“Now in Polk County [where Hester lives] if I write that ticket today for defective equipment, it’s $114 for a $5 taillight or a $10 headlight,” said Hester, a legislative consultant for the Florida Police Chiefs Association.

The driver can get the problem fixed within 30 days and present proof; in which case the cost is cut — to $96.

“That’s not much incentive,” Hester said.

The penalty for not paying the fine? Loss of driver’s license and referral to a collections agency that can charge up to 40% to collect, which can further economically damage the ticket recipient and make it impossible to pay the fine.

Likewise, the citation cost for riding a bike without a helmet is $64.50 — twice or more the cost of a helmet and perhaps taking the resources the rider needs to buy that piece of safety gear, he said.

The result is counterproductive to the intent of complying with the law and promoting safety, he said.

Hester was testifying at a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice workshop November 6. Chair Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said he’s considering legislation addressing excessive fines and fees for the upcoming legislative session.

The panel also heard from a judge, prosecutor, former public defender, and clerk of court, as well as the Legislature’s Office of Program Policy and Government Accountability on the web of fines, fees, and costs than can ensnare traffic offenders and misdemeanor and felony defendants and that many can never pay.

Laurie Scott, senior legislative analyst with OPPAGA, began the discussion with a presentation explaining that courts can impose fines (which in many cases are optional but are required for some offenses), fees to offset the cost of the proceeding (which usually are mandatory), and restitution to victims (which everyone appearing before the committee supported).

The typical first- or second-degree felony case generates $5,214 in fines and fees, Scott said, and overall for fiscal year 2017-18, the courts imposed more than $315 million in fines and fees.

However, collections that year averaged 39.89% in misdemeanor cases and 9.31% for felony cases.

Eighty percent of the fines and fees collected go to court clerks, the courts, and the state’s general revenue fund, with a small amount going to a variety of purposes ranging from compensating crime victims to the Crime Stoppers Trust Fund, Scott said.

She also said a handful of states are either conducting hearings about a defendant’s ability to pay fines and fees or giving judges more information about defendants’ resources.

Brandes introduced a panel to discuss how fines and fees are operating, in traffic as well as criminal cases. It included Second Circuit State Attorney Jack Campbell, former Second Circuit Public Defender Nancy Daniels, Lee County Judge Josephine Gagliardi, Pinellas Clerk of Court Ken Burke, and Hester.

“We have a very simple view of the current fines and fees,” said Daniels, who represented the Florida Public Defenders Association. “We think it’s unworkable, especially for felony assessments.. . . It’s almost impossible for the average felony offender who is incarcerated to come back from the prison and have any chance of paying those amounts. It really is an impairment to their reentry.”

Daniels said that public defenders had several recommendations ranging from making fines and fees — and collection policies — based on the ability to pay, not suspending drivers licenses because someone has an inability to pay fines or fees or other costs, giving judges more authority to waive fines and fees or convert them to community service, and ending having some public defender funding come from fees paid by defendants.

Campbell said prosecutors are strong supporters of restitution but on fines and fees “state attorneys are generally not interested in that at all. The term cash register justice is something I have to [separate] from in everything I do.. . . [T]he fact of the matter is justice should not be decided based on the size of your bank account.”

He said prosecutors “rarely” are concerned with the size of fines, nor are offenders.

“What they’re thinking is, ‘How long am I going to spend in jail or prison or how long am I going to be on probation,’” he said.

Campbell said some funding for prosecutors comes from trust funds financed by court fees, but said he would rather be funded entirely by general revenues because that avoids the perception punishment is affected by a defendant’s ability to pay fines and fees.

Gagliardi, who serves on the Judicial Management Council’s Workgroup on Court Costs and Fines, said as a county judge she can impose fines up to $500 on second degree misdemeanors and up to $1,000 on first degree misdemeanors.

She allows any defendant who shows an inability to pay to convert fines to community service, although circuit judges may not have that option with some felony fines and fees.

“Judges really don’t have a lot of discretion. Most of the time, we’re going to impose a fine and costs according to the statute,” Gagliardi said.

She said the JMC workgroup will have a report for the Legislature by its 2021 session. Brandes asked for any conclusions or recommendations the workgroup might have now in time for the 2020 session.

Burke said clerks have a 99-page document that guides them on how various fines and fees can be imposed and where the monies go, which can be to a variety of state and local entities. In addition to state fees, counties can impose some fees, he said. One county has a $30 charge to help pay for its courthouse, and $2 each for police education and driver safety funds are also optional for counties.

In FY 2018-19, clerks collected $774 million in court related revenues (which includes filing fees) of which $120 million went to the state’s general revenue fund, $127 million to other justice agencies including state attorneys and public defenders, and $431 million was kept by clerks to fund court-related operations.

Court fees and traffic fines are more likely to be paid in the wealthier counties, Burke said, which creates disparities around the state.

He also said traffic citations declined 43% after the state increased traffic fines 37% in a two- or three-year period, adding “I think there is a reluctance to issue a traffic citation.”

Burke praised the Legislature for mandating that clerks and other agencies conduct drivers license clinics for people with suspended licenses, and he said more than 22,000 people were helped. But he said efforts to assist people who faced high fines and fees were offset because they often faced similar high costs from the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

Brandes, without giving specifics, said he intends to pursue legislation on fines and fees this year. Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, said despite Campbell and Daniels’ discomfort with having state attorneys and public defenders partially funded by court fees, he favors that practice.

“They [convicted defendants] brought it on themselves by committing a crime,” he said. “If they’re found guilty it seems reasonable to have some kind of charge to them. If it were up to me, they’d pay the whole [cost].”

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